Linda Hopkins – The Last Of An Era
It must have been in 1991 or '92. Linda Hopkins and her band had been playing the San Francisco Blues Festival and were about to check in for their next flight. Facing all the instrument cases the ground stewardess got curious and asked them who they were and if Linda would maybe sing something for her, not dreaming that she really would. But Linda got into Sarah Vaughan's old hit song „Misty“ right away, suddenly held the microphone used for the announcements to the passengers and was singing for the entire waiting area of this San Francisco Airport section. Immediately the stewardess upgraded all the band's tickets to first class and Linda led her troupe onboard the aircraft with the biggest of her smiles.
This is Linda Hopkins. You had better always be ready for surprises, and she conquers the hearts of people in storm.
She was born in New Orleans Dec. 14 th 1924. Like with so many musicians, a second date of birth is circulating, which is Sept.11 th 1925, but Linda declared this non valid. She grew up as the second youngest of six children of a Baptist preacher and, of course, she was singing in church already as a little girl.
And it was there that she delivered the first irrefutable proof that she was a very special child. Hardly eleven years old she managed to talk the great Mahalia Jackson – on the telephone – into doing a benefit concert at her father's church. The uncrowned queen of Gospel consented without having the slightest idea with whom she had made the agreement. Only on the spot she found out that she had been booked by a decisive eleven year old and she was just as much taken with as she was surprised by “the kid”. This nickname has been sticking to Linda to this very day – very much to her own pleasure. And she even added one more coup. Quite professionally she announced Mahalia Jackson to the audience, but before doing so she sang one title herself. And that was, of all possible choices, “God Shall Wipe Your Tears Away”, at that time one of Mahalia's most popular songs. Mrs. Jackson was deeply moved by her mature rendition and saw to it that Linda became a member of the Southern Harp Spiritual Singers. She was going to stay with this choir as first tenor for eleven years and also did her first recording sessions with them in New York in 1947 for the King label.
But not only the Gospel, “The Lord's Music”, got its share of Linda's talent, also to the Blues, “The Devil's Music”, she found her way early and at a time, when in the black community of the USA you still were supposed to make up your mind for either one side or the other. Not so Linda. One meeting with the immortal Bessie Smith at the New Orleans Palace Theatre in 1936, and she also fell for the Blues. It did not really matter to her whether the songs were about God and Jesus or about the joys and pains of living people. They just had to come straight from the heart, then they were fit for Linda Hopkins. And thus she is keeping it until today.
A third meeting was going to ignite her career as a recording artist also in Jazz and Blues, and that happened in 1951. Linda was doing the Slim Jenkins Night Club in Oakland, California. She was 27 then. But a thirteen year old little Lady heard her there, and since Linda was still looking very young, she took her for someone pretty close to her own age. And also the young thing was overwhelmed by Linda's powerful sensual voice. That was Little Esther, the enigmatic kid star of the Johnny Otis Revue, and a few nights later she returned with Johnny Otis and the boss of Savoy Records Herman Labinski. In 1951 she was just separating (for a while) from Otis, at that time with Savoy, to continue as a solo act with the King label. So Johnny had a vacancy for a new singer and thus Linda's first Blues recordings were done with the Johnny Otis Orchestra for Savoy during the same year.
And on top of this Esther also created the stage name for her new pal. Up to that time Linda had been performing under her birth name Helen Mathews (not using her second name Melinda) and Little Esther considered this impossible for show business. Her own original name had been Esther Mae Jones and she adopted the name Phillips later. Now she deleted the Helen out of hand, shortened Melinda to Linda and added Hopkins for a family name. „Linda Hopkins, that's a hell of a name ... That name is you from now on“, Esther declared decidedly, and Linda readily went along with it. In turn from then on she was Esther's counselor in choosing her stage dresses.
The 50s saw Linda touring the clubs on the Hawaii islands and in Japan a lot. Triggered by a gig Linda did together with Louis Armstrong at The Brown Derby in Honolulu, the owner of that club took her to Japan to play for six weeks. She loved it there and stayed for two years. Hadn't she been missing her family around she would have stayed for good, and when returning to the USA she stunned audience and press with four Rock ‘n' Roll type songs in Japanese language. She still remembers them and occasionally sings them for friends after hours.
Also in the 50s she did recording sessions for the labels Crystalette, Forecast, Federal and Atco, frequently appeared at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, at one time together with Little Richard, contributed to Keith Wyatt's movie „Rockin' The Blues“ and did a lengthy US-Tour with the „Rock ‚n' Roll Cavalcade“.
In 1959 Linda Hopkins incorporated her great idol Bessie Smith (†1937) for the first time in the Broadway production „Jazz Train“ – a straight success. In 1960 this show got her to Europe for her first time – it was entitled “Broadway Express” there – and to top her schedules she almost offhandedly recorded a dozen songs with Swiss accompanists for the Basel based label Ex-Libris.
Solid years on the Brunswick label followed and she recorded quite a few duets with Jackie Wilson. One of these was “Shake A Hand” in 1963 which made the R & B Charts up to position 21 – the only single hit in Linda's career.
Meanwhile Linda had been attending Stella Adler's Acting School in New York City. After the experience in „Jazz Train“ she wanted to brush up her talent. „She told me I would never be an actress; she said for me to just be myself”, Linda recalled later. But hasn't that been the key to success for many other actors as well? Anyway, Stella Adler worked hard with her, and this began to pay off when Linda Hopkins took over a part in the Broadway musical „Purlie“ in 1970. For her part in „Inner City“ Linda even received a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award in 1972 and later was brilliant in a whole string of roles for stage, movie and TV, such as Lil' Boy's Mother in „The Education Of Sonny Carson“ (1974), as a singer in „Roots, The Next Generation“ (1979), as Flossie King in the Clint Eastwood movie „Honkytonk Man“ (1982) and as a housewife in the comic horror film „Leprechaun 2“ (1994).
Only in 1973 could she do her first complete LP under her own name. The release was on RCA and simply entitled „Linda Hopkins“. „Here's The Kid“ on Jazz Between The Dykes (1994, Holland) and „How Blue Can You Get“ on Quicksilver (1995) are the two latest of all together only four Linda Hopkins albums.
One of her greatest triumphs Linda Hopkins celebrated in the years of 1974/75. Ever since her time with the „Jazz Train“ ensemble Linda had been cherishing the idea of dedicating a program to the great Bessie Smith filling the whole evening. „I didn’t want to picture Bessie as just a singer of songs about misery, or as a poor broken down alcoholic. If I did that, I would be living a lie. Bessie brought joy and happiness to people – she had her upbeat side; everybody enjoyed seeing it then, and they want to remember it today”, Linda later told Jazz journalist, pianist and producer Leonard Feather. So she conceived the entire program herself – as a one woman show – and staged it under the title „Me And Bessie“ in 1974, first in Los Angeles and then in Washington D.C. Audiences and critics alike were thrilled. In 1975 she moved on to Broadway, first to the Ambassador Theatre, then to the Edison Theatre. The few weeks originally planned finally lasted thirteen months and 453 performances altogether. No other artist before or after her ever made it to fill a Broadway theatre all by herself (plus the band) every evening over such a long period of time without any break. The triumph was perfect, and the program also was released on a Columbia LP. A German source later claimed that Linda received a Tony Award also for “Me And Bessie”. Unfortunately this is not true. But it is baffling indeed that Linda Hopkins never received any but a “Critic’s Award” for this outstanding achievement.
Yet the 70s held a few more successes in store for Linda. So she toured together with Sammy Davis Jr. for nine months and sang at the official inauguration ball for President Jimmy Carter. Before that she had been singing for President Johnson, too, and she also performed for President Clinton in the 90s.
The musical revue „Black And Blue“ became another highlight in Linda's career. Two Argentines living in France, Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, who had already produced several splendid stage events, created this show as an homage to the Blues and Jazz of the glamorous Cotton Club era in Harlem, New York. In 1985 the frenetically applauded world premiere took place at the Théâtre Musical de Paris, and in 1989 Linda found herself back on Broadway again. For 829 performances (not counting the European ones before and after) Linda held the stage as the undisputed star of a thirty piece ensemble, even though she was not the only great amongst its members. There also was, for instance, the almost legendary Bunny Briggs, a senior master of tap dance who had already been brilliant with Duke Ellington in the 30s. For her part in this program of superlatives at the Minskoff Theatre Linda Hopkins was nominated for a Tony Award in 1989 and from 1995 – 97 she went touring the “old world” again with „Black And Blue“.
And one more world premiere Linda held in Europe. At the Freie Volksbühne in Berlin in December 1997 the curtain first lifted for the musical revue „Wild Women Blues“, a tribute most of all to the Lady singers Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. Together with Maxine Weldon and Mortonette Jenkins and supported by a first class live combo Linda Hopkins staged the entire spectrum of female emotions of joy and frustration of love and elicited thunderous applause from the audience. For three years – with some intermissions – the show played the cities of Berlin, Hamburg (three times at the St. Pauli Theater), Munich, Cologne, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Ljubljana, Monte Carlo and the island of Sylt. And this show, which now occasionally also plays in the USA, she is enjoying personally even more than „Black And Blue“, even though it didn't take her to Broadway yet. Because in „Wild Women Blues“ Linda has far more scope to unfold her personality and to act out her spontaneous ideas. When in „Down Home Blues“ she parades onstage in her daringly tight fringed costume from the 30s, the audience won't keep in their seats. And she will rarely miss any occasion for an improvised clownesque interlude. The most beautiful yet happened quite unintentionally. By mishap Linda lost a piece of her costume right on stage in Berlin and all of a sudden was standing there in knee long, lily white and lace trimmed grandma underwear. There couldn't have been a gimmick better calculated and the audience went nuts at this hilarious sight. And Linda, of course, didn't make any haste at all to get off stage but played heavily on the unexpected situation. You bet I'm sorry I wasn't around, and as far as I know no other photographer has captured this singular scene either. What a shame! With any other Lady of advanced years people would consider jokes like this somewhat out of place. Not so with Linda. Her sense of humor, her self irony and her warm-heartedness are so original, so direct and so disarming you simply can't help but loving her.
And if you are one of her beloved ones, she'll have even more delights in store for you, because Linda is also an outstanding cook. If she is staying somewhere for a longer spell, she'll never travel without bringing her own kitchen fittings. On her days off they will readily make room for her in the hotel kitchen and she will celebrate the solid and delicious Southern cooking for her entire troupe plus invited friends in her own pots and pans: her unbeatable Gumbo, her finest poultry and her special fried fish – extra spicy and simply unforgettable.
Really, with Linda you are having eventful times, especially when traveling. This story for instance happened in London. When Linda and her band arrived at the hotel their rooms weren't prepared yet and they were asked to have a seat in the tea room. Linda didn't order any tea but she did order a beer, got settled comfortably on a sofa and put her headphones on to listen to the CD “Nasty Blues”. All the lyrics on this record are about the one subject. And while all over the place sophisticated and proper British folks were silently enjoying their tea and cookies Linda was pleasurably singing along the frivolous lyrics aloud without wasting a single thought on her surroundings. Their flabbergasted faces she did not see, she had her eyes closed.
Consequently she also has a big heart for some others who may slightly misbehave sometimes. During the Las Vegas Festival one year one particular woman, already pretty drunk, kept wandering past the barriers and dancing right in front of the stage. The guards led her away time and again and she would keep coming back, but she was not disturbing anybody. In between two songs Linda asked the guards to let this harmless woman have her way. But instead the guards got rough with her the next time, and that rocketed Linda off. She attacked the guards, shouted into the microphone for them to leave this woman alone and even stormed off stage after the guards. The audience joined the chase empathically and a chaos arose that later made all the local TV news shows. Finally Linda used her microphone to encourage people to demand their money back because of the nasty treatment. Well, Linda was invited back to Las Vegas after that, but never again for this festival.
Just never underestimate her temperament. Also two young guys had to learn this when mugging her in broad daylight in a Los Angeles park. The one who grabbed her pocket book just managed to get away in time. But Linda got hold of the other one and gave him such a solid spanking that he needed a doctor after that. What he could not know: In her young years Linda had known a professional wrestler who taught her some of his fighting tricks. Linda later had to discuss before court that she really had been acting in self defense.
Yet otherwise she is in for any kind of fun and she would have made a truly gifted clown had she chosen this for her main profession. But her strongest message is her love. May she sing the Blues or the Gospel, this spark will always jump across and turn into a flame. Never can she get off stage without – in between encores – shaking dozens of hands stretched up to her, and never is this a show for the cameras. This is Linda Hopkins straight: From this she is drawing her still breathtaking stage presence, her bubbling energy and the mellifluousness of her pitch black voice (five octaves and then some) which can still outdo most any younger one seemingly without effort. Linda Hopkins may well be the very last real diva of Gospel and Blues, the only remaining active representative of a musical era which will be gone with her irrevocably.
Until well into the 21st century she showed only two real weaknesses, and these are her feet. Tormented for decades in far too tight high heel pumps they sometimes give her so much pain that she had to strip these atrocities of some shoes off her feet even on stage, while at the same time she was still fit to dance the Shimmy. And she wasn’t contemplating retirement either. In 2005 she played “Wild Women Blues” in Hamburg again for two months and in Paris for three weeks. Also she was honored with a star on the “Hollywood Walk Of Fame”. And aside from her big revues she is remained very much in demand in Jazz clubs, on festivals and in TV shows. At almost 82 she even set one more record. In two evenings only she recorded a complete live album – an incredible achievement at that age, and you won’t guess her years by the takes. After this triumph though she had to accept a damper. A stroke, not heavy but considerable, put an end to her stage presence. She did recover pretty well, but she left the microphone alone ever since, and she also lost some weight. But for the rest she hardly changed. And if you got close enough to ask her for an autograph, you could still watch a little miracle. Not only would she use her left hand for signing, Linda Hopkins always wrote her signature upside down. She wrote everything that way. If you wanted to read it you had to turn it around. I’ve never seen anybody else write like this, and I bet you haven’t either.
So the kid – as Mahalia Jackson once called her – was still pretty much alive and kickin' until shortly before Easter of 2017 sad news spread around the world: Linda Hopkins had passed on April 10th around 11 a.m. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the age of 92.
Grief was accompanied by questions, because few of her mourning friends and fans knew, that Linda had spent her last fourteen months there. In December 2015, a great-niece of Linda's named Hazel Lindsay came to Los Angeles and took her back to live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a nursing/assisted care facility.
Linda had many "sons” and “daughters” and “grandchildren" whom she had adopted over the decades in that wonderful informal New Orleans manner, and the author of these lines feels privileged to be one of them. And, of course, she had plenty of friends & fans in Los Angeles from all of her years of living & performing there, so she had not been alone and unassisted there either, but those who were able to keep in touch with her on the telephone reported that Linda felt well taken care of in Milwaukee. Also some of them had a chance to visit there and confirmed that it was a very nice facility and that Linda was looked after very decently. She did have respiratory problems though and a few minor strokes, so that communication with her became somewhat difficult lately, but her faith and spirit remained unshaken until she finally went home, as she would have put it herself.
Her funeral in Milwaukee was held rather privately at Christian Faith Fellowship Church, 8605 West Good Hope Road, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53224 on April 25th. But the New York Times in their issue of April 11th 2017 let the whole world know in a lengthy obituary that Linda Hopkins had gone, and in Los Angeles Linda's community arranged a public memorial service for her at Second Baptist Church, 2412 Griffith Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90011 on May 2nd, followed by a repast at the California Jazz and Blues Museum, 4317 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca 90008. And these were attended by hundreds who came to pay one last homage to the great singer, performer, actor, comedian, advisor, colleague, cook, “mom”, “grandma” and whatever else this extraordinary woman had meant to them and will always mean in their memories. H. B. Barnum, Aretha Franklin's musical director, played the piano and led the choir. Other luminaries in the crowd were Freda Payne, Barbara Morrison, Betty Bryant, Bill Duke, Carol Denis, Eloise Laws, Adam Jackson, Howlett Smith, Yve Evans, Robert Hodge, Laurence Hilton Jacobs, Brad Bobo, Quentyn Dennard, Lamar Lubin, Guadalupe D'Lushus, Louis Van Taylor, Elaine Gibbs, Leslie Baker and Frances Livings and former US Congresswoman Diane Watson. Plus, of course, many "Wild Women Blues" alumni like Maxine Weldon, Brenda Lee Eager, Peggie Blu, Robert Kyle, Al B. Threats, Washington Rucker, John Stephens, Eric Butler, Greg Poree and Phil Ranelin. It was a true Baptist service with lots of "Amens" and memories shared, with great music, shaking of tambourines, amazing singing and a "second line" march and dance through the church with umbrellas, beads and handkerchiefs and "When The Saints Go Marching In." And many who could not attend personally, sent wonderful letters and notes of condolence, such as Linda's good friend Congresswoman Maxine Waters and fellow singer Mortonette Stephens. Everybody who knew Linda Hopkins is certain that now she is singing up there in “the land where we will never grow old”. See you on the other side, Linda!
© text Dec. 2003 – May. 2017 by Mojo Mendiola
1. Linda Hopkins heating ‘em up
© copyright photos March/April/May 2005 by Mojo Mendiola